The time the odds were against another Ascot: Gertrude Shilling, whose hats are legendary among racegoers on Ladies' Day, tells how she beat cancer and succeeded in staying the course

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN THE news have been Olivia Newton-John and the Pope, causing great concern as each has been suffering the same malady in a different part of their bodies. This naturally put me in mind of my own body, which has been host to both forms of infection.

Just after Ascot in June 1966 I was turning over to go to sleep when I found a strange lump in my breast. I told Ronald, my husband, who said: 'Don't worry, darling, but just to be sure, telephone the doctor first thing in the morning.'

This I did, and he was insistent that I go and see him at once.

I still was not alarmed as I rang his doorbell. He examined me carefully, and then said: 'One moment, I have to make a telephone call.' He dialled and then said: 'Is Mr Dickson Wright in?'

It was then I began to be agitated. Mr A Dickson Wright was the foremost cancer specialist and surgeon of the hour] As he waited to be put through to the great specialist, I asked: 'Isn't he the top cancer surgeon?'

'Quite,' said my 'fatherly' physician, and then into the telephone: 'I want to make an immediate appointment for Mrs Gertrude Shilling to see you.' And in less time than it takes to tell, I was in the consulting room in Harley Street.

When Mr A Dickson Wright told me I had cancer of the breast, I didn't believe him. I felt and looked good, and had not had any illness of importance in my life.

When I asked him to arrange a consultation with the head surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital - only lately so named; formerly it had been ominously designated the Royal Cancer Hospital - I told him I would not have a mastectomy, which was the usual treatment in those days.

They arranged for me to have the 'lump' removed for diagnosis.

Well, it was cancer, all right, and I said I would leave it at that. They warned me that if I did nothing about it, I would only have 18 months to live.

I shrugged that off with my usual nonchalance. I would at least have one more Ascot, I thought, without realising how deformed I would look and in what pain I would be.

I told my husband not to tell anyone, as my darling mother was elderly and suffered from a weak heart, and I did not want to worry her. But directly my husband had left me at home, he went straight to my younger sister and his brother - two sisters had married two brothers - and spilt the beans.

My very beautiful youngest sister knew more of the beauty secrets of Hollywood than the stars themselves, and in no time she rang to tell me that two years before in America they had invented a marvellous implant to enlarge the breast. Why did I not ask Mr A Dickson Wright to find out all about it, and let him leave enough of me to accept the implant?

Fortunately I was, and still am, well endowed in that direction, so the idea took root, and after I had thoroughly told my husband off after his return from his sneaking session, I rang Mr A Dickson Wright and all was arranged.

So we went on a hurried second honeymoon (to Monte Carlo, where else?) and, on the final night, I gave my enormous femme de chambre my favourite dress, a very decollete black chiffon affair, wrongly thinking that I would never be able to wear it again.

Back in London, I entered the Lindo Wing of St Mary's Hospital, quoting Juliet's words to myself: 'My dismal scene I needs must act alone.'

I thought I had arranged everything so beautifully and secretly. Mother would be on holiday. I would have the op, and would even be able to do the wages in my private room - I was company secretary and general dogsbody at my husband's and my business - and all would have gone splendidly had not my sister Betty's niece, engaged to a young doctor, decided to marry him in a hurry, when he was offered a splendid job abroad if married.

That set the cat among the pigeons. I had told the switchboard at the hospital, in case anybody inquired, simply to say that I was not there. My two eldest sisters, my eldest brother and his wife tried in vain to discover my whereabouts. My husband and my son, David, were very discreet, and I think some of my bitchy friends thought I was having a facelift.

Ronald told me that Betty's niece was to be married the following week, with a reception at the Grosvenor House Hotel (where Ronald and I had first met in truly Barbara Cartland circumstances). I read the invitation and decided that I must go.

David was on school holiday, and I told him what clothes to bring me - Ronald could not leave work - and he and I crept out of the hospital during my 'rest period'. I managed to pull out all the tubes attached to me. In agony I put on my bra and stuffed a towel into the vacant space - thank goodness I had not bled much - and we took a taxi to the reception.

There was a deep hush as I walked into the room and went and kissed my mother. 'Darling,' she said, 'you do look pale]'

'I know, I've got a terrible migraine,' I lied. 'I'll just do the greetings and give a toast to the bridal couple and be off.'

I arrived back at the hospital, undressed myself, and somehow had stuck all the tubes back by the end of my 'rest' period.

About six months later, I was back at the Lindo Wing for the insertion of what to me is 'a little bit that is forever America'.

Next day in Selfridges, I was buying half-a-dozen brassieres in my size.

But not so fast] A couple of days later, on my affected side, I was enormous.

I dashed into Mr A Dickson Wright's consulting room without even knocking on the door. 'What do you mean by it?' I shrieked. 'One side I am me, and the other side I am Jane Russell,' referring to the well-endowed film star.

He smiled: 'Don't worry. Your body is just rejecting the implant, but we'll soon put that right.' And, with a big basin and a big syringe, he did just that. The water poured from me.

As I was leaving, I asked: 'Might this happen again?' Blandly he replied, 'It might,' leaving me to wonder, with Ascot only a few months away, what was I to wear?

In fact, at Ascot in 1968 I wore a loose dress, white on my good side and black on the other, so that if I did bulge out again, it might look deliberate. In the event, all settled down beautifully, and I started a half- black/half-white craze.

I thought no more about it until that scare this year about 'implants', when off I dashed for an examination at the dear old Royal Marsden, where I was assured that my implant, the first in England, was all right.

Of course, I had been warned that cancer was never really cured, but for 17 years I was apparently free from the ghastly growth - or 'the big C', as John Wayne sportingly called it. Then suddenly I began to suffer strange symptoms. I had been experiencing loss of blood in a small way for some time and, in my usual casual way, took little notice of it, until it began to become more than a small embarrassment.

I realised it was something perhaps a little more serious, so I trekked off to my physician, who sent me to have various tests, which all proved negative. Nevertheless, he arranged for me to see a specialist three weeks later. I returned home, and the very next day I was sitting on the settee in my drawing room, engaged with somebody on the telephone, when I felt a strange sensation. Finishing my call (thank goodness I never panic), I found myself sitting in a pool of blood.

I managed to contact my physician's secretary, a darling who, like me, never panics and who knows I am no hypochondriac, so that when I told her in a matter-of-fact tone, 'If I don't have medical attention immediately, I am afraid I will bleed to death,' calmly replied: 'Nonsense, nobody ever bleeds to death. But stay right where you are, and within half an hour I will get an appointment for you with the leading specialist for your complaint.'

True to her word, within no time I was being examined by Sir Hugh Lockhart-Mummery, Serjeant-Surgeon to the Queen, under whose expert and gentle hands my prayers were answered. The flood had ceased, and he said, kindly: 'That was a very serious haemorrhoid burst you had. I have cauterised it, but I am afraid you may have something else which I have not yet diagnosed. There is a new machine at the London Clinic (his consulting room was in the same building), and I will arrange an appointment there for you.'

I was soon undergoing some most unpleasant tests, which unfortunately confirmed that I had cancer of the colon, requiring surgery once again. The operation was successful, but I went through the most hellish pain for six months because I refuse to take drugs. I found that prayer was most rewarding.

I do not know how, but I managed Ascot in 1984. David had designed me a wonderful 'Olympic Games' outfit, and for the second day, at my suggestion, a hat full of eyes that reminded me of the watching eyes of the doctors and nurses who, under the direction of my Maker, successfully pulled me through my terrible ordeal, although they thought my recovery problematical.

I cannot pretend that I was at my best, but I was determined not to show it and, amazingly, two months later I awoke one day free of pain and, I believe, completely cured.

Dear Olivia, do not despair. I, too, survived cancer of the breast and am still alive and well a quarter of a century later. And Your Holiness, I, too, had cancer of the colon and was cured.

(Photographs omitted)

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